Jon Shafer's At the Gates review - a 4X experiment more fascinating than fun
Explore, expand, exploit, existential crisis.
One of the first tutorial pop-ups you'll get in At the Gates - and there aren't many - warns you that this is a "hard, slow game". It's not the warmest of welcomes but that's not what At the Gates is about. This is a game about surviving gruelling winters and, slowly but surely, expanding your economy and influence against the odds. There's nothing wrong with that; hard games are often the most rewarding, and slow ones can be soothing. The problem, however, is that it's less hard than it is exasperating, and less slow than it is straight-up catatonic.
The setup in At the Gates is pretty standard 4X stuff: choosing a faction - with the only one available at the start being the vanilla Goths (more are unlocked by conquering or allying with them in-game, which is a nice touch) - and then spawning, with very little, in a random position. The structure, though, is surprisingly different: you get one Settlement for the entire game, and instead of buildings within it, all of your economy is built around people, or Clans.
At the surface this is a neat idea - you're playing from the humble beginnings of a hunter-gatherer tribe, not a grand, imperial civilization - and so bringing the human element of early civilization to the fore makes sense. The problem is that in practice, as with so many things in At the Gates, it just doesn't quite click. You start with one Clan - a single unit - and you need to train them in a profession, like Reaper or Gatherer, that falls within one of six disciplines, like Agriculture. You need to unlock the profession first, by studying it from the tech tree, and then once you've studied it you can begin your little unit's training.
The idea, I think, is that this builds into a nice, efficient cycle of studying the tech tree and then training units in what you've unlocked, but in my time so far it's never really threatened to get going. To train a Clan in a profession they need to be housed inside your settlement's base building, where they're not doing anything - so you'll need to pluck core parts of your economy out of the economy itself to actually progress them.
That slows things right down, of course, but more than that it often just leaves you with two equally unsatisfying options: make no progress in your economy (often at the risk of genuinely starving to death), or make no progress in the actual advancement of your society. Too often you have to choose the latter, keeping your extremely narrowly-specialised units out in the wild gathering resources of whatever kind that's available, for you to just about get by, whilst you languish behind the other more-developed societies in the game. Repeat reminders that you're not training anyone - !!! - mean you're made to feel almost guilty that your settlement isn't continuously re-tooling units into something else, but there just isn't the incentive to. There's no reason to change your Reaper to a Fisherman in a land-locked field of wheat, just because you can. Instead, it feels like the game is built for you to stagnate.
The other big headliner for At the Gates is its seasonal changes, a weather system designed to give the game a certain rhythm, which again feels like a small-but-smart shift in 4X design on the surface and, unfortunately, again feels like more of a shackling of the fun than an enhancement of it in practise.
Depending on where you start on the map, you'll feel the winter months to different effect - the in-game years take 24 turns to complete, with about 10 to 12 turns of winter - but you'll always feel it to some extent. As the year progresses from spring through to winter the map, a gorgeous, painterly thing, gradually evolves with it, until it freezes over, the vast majority of it painted a deceptively festive white. The impact for you is decidedly less cheerful. Many resources, particularly food, become ungatherable, so you'll need to stock up in advance. Some tiles become impassable due to blizzards, on top of already impassable or severely hindering terrain like swamps, flooding, or rain. The rest are suddenly deeply hazardous - your units often can't move more than one tile, and if they're outside the small area of effect of your settlement, they'll need supplies to survive, or they'll starve to death. Supplies are gathered simply from the tile they're standing on, and almost all of them have no supplies in the winter, so you'll need to plan well ahead: leave a Clan more than a few tiles outside of your settlement for the cold months and there's a good chance that, without careful micromanagement, they'll die.
It sounds tough, and it is, but where it moves from tough to exasperating is in the little failures of the UI in clarifying the consequences of what you do - no warnings or notifications that a Clan's struggling for instance, either in combat or in starvation, means that once you've acquired more than a handful it's very easy to lose one without even noticing. Multiple times I've had long-serving Clans that had ever so gradually built up experience and level in their discipline go on to die without even realising it. On another occasion, I tried to move one from its position just two tiles out of my settlement area back into safety, and it died on the one tile in between because it wasn't quite clear whether moving it would allow for the usual one-turn grace period where it can survive on low supplies or not. There goes five hours of training with it.
As for the rhythm, what this all means is that you effectively can't do anything for half of every in-game year - in other words, for half of your time playing the game. Every winter, you need to bring your units back to safety from the resources they were foraging, or micromanage them in short-term encampments. You could retrain them, seeing as you've already shuttled them back to the settlement, but then there's little point in that because there are only certain resources nearby, and only these bottom-of-the-tech-tree professions can harvest them. So you spend ten to twelve turns doing little more than clicking 'next turn'. Then maybe four turns just walking units back to where they were through the awkward terrain, and before you know it it's time to start prepping for that winter again - don't forget it takes even longer for them to get back!
None of those gripes really get to the core of At the Gates' problem though: that it just doesn't give you a reason to keep playing. It's almost a survival game, asking you to find ways to hold out against the harsh world and worrying foes that surround you, but it just doesn't have the texture to make that compelling. There's not enough of a reason to stick with my silent, often belligerent and precious Clans through the tough times. There's not enough of a tease of what's to come, a game built around a tech tree - which should be a 4X fan's dream - but with the most glorious accomplishments of that enforced and seemingly endless teching being an upgrade of my Bard to a Minstrel.
After a long time grinding out the seasons you'll eventually find an equilibrium, where you just about get enough food and resources to keep ticking over, you've stopped having any kind of trouble with bandits, there's no reason to progress further up the tech tree to simply take your people out of their finally-just-about-working jobs, and the enemy factions don't really have any interest in attacking. That Roman Empire you're supposed to be overthrowing just keeps giving you some food every now and then for playing nice. At that point, naturally, you take a step back: to think about not just what needs doing next, but what point there is in you doing anything whatsoever, and that's where At the Gates hits a pretty impassable wall.